By Marcy Mason
It’s 7:45 on a Wednesday morning in May at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and passengers are boarding Delta Air Lines flight 334 to Mexico City. One by one, the passengers scan their boarding passes and approach a camera that’s set up on a jet way where they have their pictures taken before they board the flight.
The photos are being matched through biometric facial recognition technology to photos that were previously taken of the passengers for their passports, visas, or other government documentation. All is moving smoothly until the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers assisting the passengers are alerted that they need to check one of the travelers.
It’s a 28-year old woman, a Mexican national with a Mexican passport. The biometric system alerted the officers because when preflight information was gathered on the woman, no historical photos to match against her could be found.
A CBP officer took the woman aside and looked at her passport. No visa was attached and the woman didn’t have a green card to prove she was a lawful permanent resident. Upon further questioning, the woman admitted that four years ago, she had come into the country illegally.
Using a specially designed, CBP biometric mobile device, the officer took fingerprints of the woman’s two index fingers. “This was the first time that we had captured this individual’s biometrics, her unique physical traits,” said Bianca Frazier, a CBP enforcement officer at the Atlanta Airport. “We didn’t have her biometrics because we had never encountered her before.”
As early as 2002, shortly after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, legislation was passed requiring the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security to use biometric technology to issue visas and screen non-U.S. citizens entering the U.S. Then in 2004, more legislation was passed, authorizing DHS to collect biometric data from non-U.S. citizens exiting the country.
According to Frazier, finding people who have entered the country illegally is common. Since June 2016, when CBP and Delta Air Lines launched a pilot program to test CBP’s biometric facial recognition exit technology, passengers like the young Mexican woman have been found daily. “She was typical of the people who have entered without inspection,” said Frazier. “Most days we find a minimum of two or three undocumented people, but sometimes we find as many as eight to 10 boarding a flight.”
Ultimately, the woman was allowed to board the flight, but when Frazier used CBP’s mobile device to take her fingerprints, it created a fingerprint identification number that is specifically tied to the woman. In the future, if she applies for a visa to return to the U.S. or is encountered crossing the border illegally, an alert will be triggered, indicating that the woman had previously entered the U.S. illegally and is on a lookout list. Additionally, when Frazier processed the traveler, the device automatically created a biometric exit record confirming that the woman left the country.
For more than a decade, the U.S. government has been struggling to find a way to develop a practical and cost effective biometric entry/exit system that fulfills a congressional mandate to keep America safe. CBP has partnered with the U.S. air travel industry to meet that goal and is implementing innovative ways of using biometric technology to provide better enforcement and a better experience for travelers.
By 2013, when CBP assumed responsibility for designing and implementing a system that could biometrically track travelers exiting the U.S., the government had been wrestling with the challenge for years. Technology was part of the problem, but how to integrate that technology into the existing infrastructure at airports without driving up costs and negatively impacting airport and airline operations was a conundrum.
CBP had been working with the airlines to verify travelers entering and exiting the country since the mid-1990s, using travelers’ biographic information— date of birth, passport number, document number, country of citizenship, etc. “The airlines sent us the manifest information in advance of the flight’s departure,” said John Wagner, deputy executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations. “We did law enforcement work based on that data.”
But then, after September 11, biographic information wasn’t enough. To increase security, Congress passed legislation that added biometric requirements for tracking travelers. “Inbound passengers were easier to track because we already had a process,” said Wagner. “When travelers come off of an international flight, they are funneled through a secure pathway to the CBP inspection area. The airline transmits the biographic data to us. We verify that information when we read a traveler’s passport and we make sure it’s accurate. That’s when we also collect fingerprints from most non-U.S. citizens.”
With outbound flights, collecting passengers’ biometrics is much more difficult. “We’ve never constrained departures to be able to do that,” said Wagner. “We don’t have specific departure areas for outbound flights. International flights depart from all over the airport, so it was difficult to figure out where we could collect biometrics and what technology we would use.”
Added to that, CBP lacked support. “The travel industry stakeholders were vehemently opposed to any of this because they thought it would cost money and it would slow people down,” said Wagner. The challenges seemed insurmountable. “We were focused on where is the magic technology that is going to make this work and address all of these concerns. No one had been able to find it because it didn’t exist,” he said.
This article originally appeared in Frontline Magazine, a news publication run by CBP. Read the full original story at CBP’s website.